Plan a California Coast Road Trip with a Flexible Itinerary

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur. Photo © Michael Bundscherer, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

The ideal way to experience the California coast is to hit the road. Following this legendary road trip will take you through California’s bustling cosmopolitan cities, small beach towns, redwood forests, and lots and lots of sandy beaches.

You can switch back and forth between the two routes depending on your pace and your interests. Highway 1 is generally more scenic; U.S. 101 is usually faster.For the most part, you’ll cover this stunning 850 miles by following the legendary Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) and U.S. 101. You can switch back and forth between the two routes depending on your pace and your interests. Highway 1 is generally more scenic; U.S. 101 is usually faster. A few diversions onto other routes are necessary to cover the entire coast (for example, you’ll be driving I-5 between San Diego and Los Angeles).

The day-by-day route below begins in San Diego, but you can just as easily start in Los Angeles or San Francisco, or reverse the route from driving north to driving south if that works better for you. You can also break out any section of the coast as its own 2-4 day getaway.


San Diego

Day 1

map of San Diego

San Diego

Easygoing San Diego is a great place to start any vacation. Upon arrival, orientate yourself by driving to the top of Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial, a small mountain that has views of the whole city. After that, head down to La Jolla Cove to go kayaking or snorkeling; or just lie on the beach.

In the afternoon, visit Balboa Park, where you’ll spend most of your time at the San Diego Zoo. End your day with a meal in the Gaslamp Quarter. Try the historic Grant Grill or new favorite Café Chloe.

Day 2

Take I-5 out of San Diego a half hour north to the North County beach towns of Encinitas, Carlsbad and Oceanside. The drive from Encinitas to Oceanside is just half an hour along a coastal road that changes names in each city; make sure to stop for a surf or a swim since the ocean temperatures will get cooler and cooler as you head up the coast. Continue on Highway 1 rather than inland U.S. 101 to visit Huntington Beach before turning off towards Long Beach for a nighttime ghost tour on The Queen Mary, an ocean liner that is now home to restaurants, a hotel, shops, and a museum. If you are daring enough, book a room for the night in the haunted ocean liner.


Los Angeles

Day 3

map of Los Angeles

Los Angeles

Jump on I-405 to save some time and drive about 30 miles north, exiting towards Venice Beach. Park your vehicle and take a stroll along the Venice Beach Boardwalk to take in the local wildlife that includes bodybuilders, street performers, and alternativeculture types. Without getting back on the highway, take the local roads paralleling the beach 10 minutes north to Santa Monica. Enjoy the amusement park rides of the Santa Monica Pier or just take a break on Santa Monica Beach. For dinner, get a taste of the Caribbean at Santa Monica’s causal but popular Cha Cha Chicken or backtrack to Venice for a hearty Italian meal at C&O Trattoria.

Day 4

Consider heading inland for a day of culture (and pop culture) sights. For aesthetic stimulation, visit the world famous Getty Center or the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Less rigorous on the mind is a walk down the star-studded Hollywood Walk of Fame and a stop at the historic Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, where you can find the handprints of your favorite movie stars. End the day with a cocktail at Sunset Boulevard’s Rainbow Bar & Grill. There might even be a grizzled, past-his-prime rocker sitting in the booth next to you.

Day 5

Take the Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) out of Santa Monica west as it heads away from sprawling Los Angeles and into Malibu. Stop at Malibu’s Surfriders Beach to watch the surfers compete for its famously peeling waves (or catch one yourself). After a morning outdoors, feed your mind with ancient art at The Getty Villa in Malibu. (Admission is free, but you’ll need to reserve a ticket in advance.) Finish the day by watching the sun slide into the Pacific from the outdoor deck of Neptune’s Net, while enjoying fresh seafood. If you want to spend more time in the Los Angeles area, you can easily fill a couple of days enjoying Disneyland Resort.


Santa Barbara and Ventura

Day 6

map of Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara

Wake up early and drive north on the scenic Pacific Coast Highway. Thirty-five miles from Malibu, at Oxnard, merge onto U.S. 101. Once on U.S. 101, take the exit towards Ventura Harbor to catch a boat out to the Channel Islands National Park for a day of hiking, snorkeling, or kayaking on Santa Cruz Island. (Make boat reservations in advance.) Return to Ventura Harbor and eat dinner at one of the harbor’s seafood restaurants, such as Brophy Brothers or Andria’s Seafood Restaurant & Market. Or head to downtown Ventura for a vegan dinner at Mary’s Secret Garden or an Italian meal and cocktail at hip Café Fiore.

Day 7

Take U.S. 101 north just a half hour (28 miles) to Santa Barbara. Get a history fix at the Santa Barbara Mission, which might be the most beautiful of the 21 Spanish missions in California. Then taste some of Santa Barbara’s wines on the Urban Wine Trail, six tasting rooms on lower State Street, or head north for a day at palm-lined Refugio State Beach, 20 miles west of Santa Barbara on U.S. 101.

If your schedule is flexible, you might consider another full day in Santa Barbara, another day of wine-tasting in nearby Santa Maria Valley, or a day on the Gaviota Coast. Whatever you do, stop at Santa Barbara’s State Street for a fine meal or cocktail at a restaurant like the local favorite Opal. Or head off State Street for superb Mexican food at La Super-Rica Taqueria.


Big Sur and the Central Coast

Day 8

map of Big Sur

Big Sur

Drive 1.75 hours (92 miles) north of Santa Barbara on U.S. 101 to San Luis Obispo’s Madonna Inn, where you can take in its kitschy decor during a restroom and stretch-the-legs break.

Outdoor enthusiasts will want to head off the highway and go west on Los Osos Valley Road just 20 minutes (12 miles) to Montana de Oro State Park, one of the state’s best coastal parks. Picnic at Spooner’s Cove or hike to the top of 1,347-foot-high Valencia Peak. Then head back to U.S. 101 North, but be sure to turn onto Highway 1 north to take in sunset over Morro Rock, known as the “Gibraltar of the Pacific.”

Another option is to drive an hour north (44 miles) to opulent Hearst Castle. Tours of this “ranch” built for newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst offer insight into the lifestyle of the rich and infamous. However you spend your day, end it with a meal in one of the Central Coast’s unassuming beach towns: Morro Bay, Cayucos or Cambria.

Day 9

Head north on Highway 1 for what might be the most scenic day of driving on your whole trip. The two-lane highway here winds along the mountains of Big Sur with plentiful views of the ocean. From Cambria to the heart of Big Sur is 75 miles, but the scenery, winding roadway, and frequent road construction can make the drive last well over two hours. Be sure to make multiple stops to take in the scenery at places like Salmon Creek Falls, Sand Dollar Beach, and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Catch sunset at Pfeiffer Beach before spending the night camping in the redwoods of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park or in the meadow at Andrew Molera State Park. Or splurge with a once-in-a-lifetime stay at the Post Ranch Inn or Ventana resort.


Monterey Bay

Day 10

map of Monterey Bay

Monterey Bay

Continue up Highway 1 for 45 minutes (less than 30 miles) through the northern section of Big Sur to the Monterey Peninsula. Take a walk in Carmel’s Point Lobos State Reserve or head to scenic Carmel Beach. Then drive a few miles north into Monterey to spend the afternoon at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Dine on fresh seafood at Pacific Grove’s Passionfish, Monterey’s Fish House in Monterey, or Phil’s Fish Market up Highway 1 in Moss Landing.

If you want to spend another day in this area, consider heading inland to Carmel Valley for wine-tasting, wandering the galleries in Carmel-by-the-Sea, or golfing at Pebble Beach.

Day 11

Getting to Santa Cruz is an easy 50-minute drive (44 miles) up Highway 1 from the Monterey Peninsula. The eclectic beach city is an ideal place for recreation whether you are surfing, stand up paddleboarding, or hiking redwood-filled Forest of Nisene Marks State Park or the coastal bluffs of Wilder Ranch State Park. End the day with thrill rides at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

If your adrenaline is still racing from the Boardwalk rides, calm down with a drink at Red Restaurant & Bar or The Crepe Place.


San Francisco

Day 12

Map of San Francisco and the Bay Area in Caiifornia

San Francisco and the Bay Area

Wake up early for a drive on Highway 1 from Santa Cruz less than two hours (80 miles) to San Francisco. In the city, spend a few hours in the hands-on science museum The Exploratorium. As the sun goes down, make sure to head out for dinner, whether it’s seafood at the Tadich Grill, modern Vietnamese at The Slanted Door, or pizza at Tony’s Pizza Napoletena. If you still have energy, make sure to check out some of San Francisco’s vibrant nightlife or a concert at a venue like The Fillmore.

Day 13

Head out on the San Francisco Bay to take a fascinating tour of the island prison Alcatraz. Or secure passage on a ferry to Angel Island, which has hiking trails that offer up some of the finest views of the city.

In the afternoon, shop the used clothing stores of Haight-Ashbury or the department stores of Union Square. Or browse the books at North Beach’s City Lights.

You’ll quickly fall in love with San Francisco; you can easily extend your romance to three or four days if you have the time.


The North Coast

Day 14

map of Mendocino Coast

Mendocino Coast

Your journey north begins with a drive on U.S. 101 over San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Then after five miles turn off U.S. 101 to Highway 1 at Mill Valley. On the slow, over-four-hour drive up the coast (around 160 miles), make time to stop at places like the tiny but unique Sea Ranch Chapel, which is just feet off Highway 1, and the Point Arena Cove, a mile drive off the highway to a scenic little bay popular for fishing and other recreation.

End the day in the community of Mendocino with a view of the sunset at Mendocino Headlands State Park or a pint at the lively Patterson’s Pub.

Day 15

Drive Highway 1 north of Fort Bragg until the road turns inland to connect with U.S. 101 after about an hour of driving. Opt for the Avenue of the Giants, a 31-mile drive through redwoods by the Eel River. Even though it’s only 31 miles, the drive could take a few hours if you decide to get out of your car and ponder the trees.

Get back on U.S. 101 North and head an hour north (60 miles) to Eureka. Stop to wander the city’s Old Town and Waterfront. Continue on U.S. 101 another 10 minutes or so to charming Arcata. Wander through the redwoods of the Arcata Community Forest before sundown. Dine at one of the restaurants surrounding the lively Arcata Plaza.

Day 16

Start your morning with a tasty crepe from Arcata’s Renata’s Creperie and Espresso before hitting U.S. 101 North on your final day. About 20 minutes north (15 miles), exit to the scenic coastal city of Trinidad. Have your camera handy for photos of Trinidad Memorial Lighthouse, Trinidad Head and Trinidad State Beach.

Another half hour up U.S. 101 (26 miles), turn onto Newton B. Drury Scenic Drive to explore Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. If you have the energy, drive out Davison Road to Gold Bluffs Beach, where Roosevelt elk roam the sands, and continue on the dirt drive to hike the one-mile round-trip Fern Canyon Trail, which passes through a steep canyon draped in bright green ferns.

Head back out to U.S. 101 to drive the 45 minutes (38 miles) to Crescent City, where you can get a hotel room and a full night’s sleep.


Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Coastal California.

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4 Comments

  1. MICHELLE says:

    Can you help me plan a small road trip from San Diego to San Francisco? Departing San Diego on 2/2/15. Need to arrive in San Francisco by 2/5/15

    We would like to drive the coast – we are looking to stop at Seal Beach for a night to visit some friends.

    From there, who knows ??? Santa Barbara, Santa Eniz??? I am not familiar with Cali., but I know my husband and I would like to see some wineries and stay at clean quiet towns before arriving at our son’s in San Francisco. Would recommend Carmel ?

    Any suggestions and wisdom you can send my way would be very much appreciated :-)

    Michelle M.

    • Carrie Hirsch says:

      Hi Michelle,

      Carmel is a lovely town, quieter than Monterey, and the nearby Carmel Valley is known for its wineries. Moon Coastal California is a great guide for planning your road trip and has more information on what to do and where to stay in the Monterey Bay and Central Coast regions.

  2. Trixie says:

    Wish I had the time for a lengthy trip. I’m a stranger to California and have one week to see as much as possible. Want to see San Diego, San Francisco, redwood trees, seals, beaches, a winery or two, eat seafood, drive the Big Red Bridge, and enjoy local spots as well. I’d like to fly into LAX and out of San Francisco. Originating from DCA, RDU o RIC. Thanks for your help. Loved the article! Trip begin date is 2/12/15.

    • Carrie Hirsch says:

      Hi Trixie,

      There’s so much to do in California, but you can definitely see a lot in one week! Stuart’s book Moon Coastal California is a great resource for ideas on maximizing your time and can help you plan how to split up your days between San Diego, the Central Coast, and San Francisco.